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Grade-schoolers (and adults, too) tend to stutter when they're upset, uncomfortable, angry, or just excited. If your child is stuttering only at these times and the stuttering is mild, don't rush to get her evaluated. This stumbling over words is different from a true stuttering problem (called dysfluency), which affects only 5 percent of children and usually emerges between ages 5 and 7.
If your child is truly stuttering, she may drag out the first sound in a word, saying "ssssoda," or repeat the sound, as in "Sh-sh-she nice!" She may also open her mouth to say something, but get stuck before any sound comes out. Along with this "blocking," you may notice tension in her jaw or cheeks, or she may look away or clench her fist, blink repeatedly, grimace, or stomp her foot from the frustration of trying to get the words out. If these signs are present, talk with her teacher. Her school will provide a free screening with a speech therapist. Or talk with her pediatrician, who can refer you to a private speech-language pathologist for an evaluation.
Most practitioners believe that a child with a severe stutter (usually measured in the number of repeated or prolonged sounds and blocks) can benefit from early intervention. If exercises are presented as fun games, even young children can learn strategies to reduce the frequency and severity of stuttering episodes.
You can also take steps at home to help a child who stutters. Whether your grade-schooler is simply going through a normal dysfluent stage or exhibiting a true stutter, the way in which you respond is important. Keep your voice slow and relaxed, your speech slow — think Mr. Rogers. If you are a rapid staccato talker, try to slow down so your child doesn't feel the need to respond in a similar manner. Don't tell her to slow down, though — just speak slowly and she'll follow your lead. Maintain eye contact, smile, and be patient. If you turn away and act hurried, your grade-schooler will feel pressure to "get it out," and this will only make her stuttering worse. If you look frustrated, she'll pick up on this and be even more self-conscious. Allow your child to express her frustration or embarrassment. She may say: "The words get stuck in my throat and they can't get out." If your child tells you she's having that sort of trouble with her speech, then seek professional help. In the meantime, acknowledge her feelings by saying: "I understand how frustrating that must be for you. There's someone we can see who has some tricks to help you get your words out."
For more information and resources, call the Stuttering Foundation of America at (800) 992-9392.